Expansion of Alabama's ban on discussions of sexual orientation, gender identity on hold

The Alabama House Education Policy Committee meet Wednesday to discuss HB 354. The legislation, also known as Alabamas “Dont Say Gay Bill,” would prohibit classroom instruction or discussions related to gender identity or sexual orientation for public school students in kindergarten through eighth grade, extending a current ban on instruction to the fifth grade. (Alander Rocha/Alabama Reflector)

A bill that would have expanded Alabama's ban on elementary school discussions of sexual orientation and gender identity will not move out of committee this year.

House Education Policy Committee Chairwoman Terri Collins, R-Decatur, said House Bill 354, sponsored by Rep. Mack Butler, R-Rainbow City, would not come to a vote after a public hearing where members of the LGBTQ community said the bill could exacerbate mental health issues among LGBTQ Alabamians and possibly lead to an increase in suicides.

Many LGBTQ children can't rely on their parents for support, said Jesse Alex, a resident of the Wiregrass. Teachers, counselors and coaches sometimes become that adult, he said.

"The only reason why a child would not be open about that adversity in their homes is because of fear of facing abuse or getting kicked out," Alex said. "Removing the ability of teachers to talk about these issues robs these kids of their safety. It puts them in further danger of abuse and neglect behind closed doors."

The Legislature voted in 2022 to ban discussions of sexual orientation and gender identity from kindergarten through the fifth grade. Butler's bill would have extended that prohibition to the eighth grade.

"This just keeps a school from pushing an agenda that you can clearly see, if you watch the media, and yes, it is happening in Alabama," Butler said. "Some of you may not be aware of it, but I promise you, it is happening right now."

(READ MORE: Bills targeting LGBTQ communities introduced in Alabama House)

The bill would also require the State Board of Education to create procedures for informing parents about any changes in a student's mental, emotional or physical health services or monitoring and prohibits local boards of education from adopting policies that go against these procedures. The bill states that parental permission must be obtained before administering specific health screenings or questionnaires to a student.

Collins said Wednesday evening she thought Butler's intent was not clear enough in the bill, and that he needed to focus it. The public hearing, she said, aimed to allow Butler and Rep. Ben Robbins, R-Sylacauga, to hear from constituents about improving the bill.

The committee chairwoman said she thinks Butler wants teachers to teach their curriculum and not push an agenda

"And I think he'll focus more on that aspect of it," she said.

Collins, who said she never intended to vote on the legislation this year, said she thinks Butler had some good conversations with the people that spoke at the public hearing.

"He spoke about several of those conversations, so I think some of that will influence that as well," she said.

Opponents of the bill said it would end up punishing teachers and cutting young teenagers off from critical resources.

(READ MORE: Alabama lawmaker files bill restricting transgender college athletes)

James Miller, who has been an educator for 31 years and worked as a counselor, said the bill would punish teachers. There are many ways for counselors to assess students' well-being, such as assessments for depression and suicide ideation, but the most common way to just have a conversation, he said.

"If that child says, 'I'm having a bad day,' am I supposed to call their parents and tell them they're having a bad day?" Miller asked. "You're adding work to teachers that just isn't fair."

Miller said that throughout his career, he's had students confide in him that they suffered physical and emotional abuse from parents and caregivers.

"The bill says I got to call and tell the parents that their child is coming to me telling me that they're being abused," Miller said. "Do you see a conflict there? That's going to be a huge, huge problem."

Audrey Price said she almost died by suicide at age 15 and said she knows that LGBTQ youth don't understand themselves at that young age.

"They feel like they're the only people in the world that feel the way that they do," Price said. "They don't see themselves receiving the same humanity that their peers are given."

Price also said children learn about gender and sexuality unrelated to the LGBTQ community. Learning about Amelia Earhart, the first woman to fly solo over the Atlantic, would not be the same without the mention of her gender, she said.

"What makes Martha and George Washington's marriage more appropriate for children than that of former Rep. Patricia Todd and her wife?" Price asked.

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The Alabama House on Wednesday gave final approval to House Bill 261, sponsored by Rep. Susan DuBose, R-Hoover, which bans transgender athletes from playing college sports of the sex with which they align.

Miller said that trust is the foundation of a student-teacher relationship, and that trust would be shattered if he were to call the parents by obligation. Many children fear becoming homeless if their parents find out about their sexuality. Others get abused. Recalling his childhood, he said he was in the closet growing up, and he feared becoming homeless if his parents ever found out.

"I was one of those kids. Had I been outed when I was a kid, I would have been homeless," Miller said.

Read more at AlabamaReflector.com.